It may seem like a fairy tale, or one of those stories that newspapers blazon across the front pages, but it is a true story, simple but true, and very modern. During the period of the holidays in 2001, a structural market crisis afflicting the sector of sanitary fittings made of enamelled steel persuaded some of the largest groups operating in this sector to reduce or discontinue production of bathtubs. In Italy, three plants were involved in this process, one of these being the Vitorchiano plant. Despite this crisis, a group of local businessmen who way back in 1961 had established the Smalteria Viterbese, together with other members of the company’s staff and consultants, reacted to the human and social repercussions generated in a region with little or no industrial vocation by deciding to buy back the entire production structure and the SMAVIT brand name, in the process saving jobs and the result of years of devoted and often difficult work.
The story takes place in Vitorchiano, seven kilometres from Viterbo, and the company is called Smavit, which stands for Smalteria Viterbese. The details in the words of Giovanni Bruni, the protagonist of this story and today relative main shareholder and director of Smavit. On a hot and windy day of June, we meet along the A1 motorway, between Milan and Vitorchiano, as he returns from a CISP meeting, because Bruni is also a member of the board of the Centre. His calm voice with its attractive Lazio accent is backed by the noise of the lorries racing along the motorway, but the unruffled determination is evident.
Giovanni Bruni, born in Viterbo sixty-eight years ago to a family of grocers, began to deal with vitreous enamel in 1960. With Enrico Lupi and Giulio Cesare, he experienced all the vicissitudes of the Smalteria Viterbese, which in September last year became Smavit Spa.
Nominated commendatore (commander of an Italian order of chivalry) more than ten years ago, he renounced the tranquillity of retirement to avoid the closure of the company he had founded, and which gave employment to 60 people. He is the main shareholder and director of Smavit.
“How could we stand by and watch the company we had created and built up with such effort and hard work simply disappear? What’s more, at the time it represented the most important metalworking industry in the Viterbo area. Could we throw 60 workers onto the streets? No, it just wasn’t to be heard of, for social reasons, for reasons of affection: we were, and we still are, a great family.”
Even the personal path of Giovanni Bruni expresses the same obstinate determination, the drop that excavates even stone…
“I was born in Viterbo 68 years ago, in one of the oldest quarters of the town, Pianoscarano, my family were grocers. But in 1960 the “fatal” attraction of vitreous enamel made itself felt, and contacts were made with relatives who owned mechanical workshops. With dr. Enrico Lupi and his brother Giulio Cesare”, continues Giovanni Bruni, “I shared the idea of setting up a project for the enamelling of metal furniture on contract: kitchen cupboards, cooker hoods, products that were highly successful at the time. Given the encouraging market investigations, in 1961, together with Enrico and Giulio Cesare Lupi, I founded the company “Smalteria Viterbese.” It was not a great success: the workers were not trained in enamelling, and the raw products were not suitable. In Rome we met people who were working in the field of household appliances, there was a strong demand for stovepipes enamelled in brown, and we became the principal manufacturers. Then kerosene was replaced by other fuels and there was a crisis in the sector of stovepipes: what’s more, it was seasonal production, from June to January. And from January to June? We ventured with a certain degree of success into the construction industry: panels for façades and even industrial sheds with fill panels made of enamelled steel.
Although we completed some quite interesting projects, we were dissuaded from continuing by the difficulties we encountered in getting paid.
We added cooker hoods, shower trays and hobs. When stove piping became even more sporadic we began enamelling bathtubs, shower trays and washing machine drums on contract.
This activity grew steadily for about five years until all our largest customers decided at about the same time to become independent. So, within just a few weeks, we lost about 70% of our production and found ourselves in the situation of having to close down or start producing for ourselves.
“For this reason in the mid-eighties”, it is still Giovanni Bruni telling the story, “we set up on our own, becoming the sixth most important Italian producer. Soon after this we acquired a really good market share that grew as other companies closed. When the markets of the middle and far east opened up they asked us for shaded colourings, and we – encouraged by the vicinity of Civita Castellana, “the home of sanitary ware” – were the largest colour and shaded enamelling company. When – due to one of the cyclical phases of the market and the products – coloured products entered a crisis, to our mutual satisfaction, we got back in touch with Merloni Termosanitari, so successfully that we later progressed from substantial industrial collaboration to a situation in which Merloni acquired what was first a minority shareholding in the Smalteria Viterbese Spa. In the course of a few years, that minority shareholding first became a majority holding and then 100% ownership, with the result that the Smalteria Viterbese merged into the Merloni Termosanitari Group in 1996, although the group then decided to close the plant in 2001.”
Q: And this is where the sea change in our story occurs…
“The workers we had trained,” says Bruni, “came to seek me out with the aim of finding a solution. Having found other businessmen working in the industry with whom I was on good terms and the three managers for production, marketing and administration, people who had grown up in the Smalteria where they occupied these positions and had also kept them during the Merloni period, in September 2001 we set up Smavit Spa. Profiting from the excellent relationship that had developed over a decade of close collaboration, the new company bought the property and equipment in the Vitorchiano plant from Merloni Termosanitari, together with the Smavit brand name.”
Smavit Spa will continue, as in the past, its production of sanitary fittings in porcellain enamelled steel (buth-tubs, shower trays etc.) but with the possibility of diversifying production with new items.
Q: And what is the current situation?
“We cannot complain: so far, we have achieved more than we expected and we are confident that there will still be space for us in the near future, even if the competition is cut-throat.”
Q: Let’s take a rapid look at the market for your products.
“The market for steel bathtubs continues to suffer from the competition from acrylic ones, which can be produced in a greater variety and larger sizes. In the sector of shower trays the strongest competitor is ceramic, which costs more. The water closet trays are mainly sold to public users and in the Middle East, partly for religious reasons. The sinks are in demand in northern Europe, especially in countries where d.i.y. is in demand, such as Holland, Denmark, Belgium.”
Q: Strategies for the future?
“We will seek alternative products, increasing the range of steel bathtubs, with more attractive, larger new shapes, following the German model.”
Q: What role does vitreous enamel play in your great entrepreneurial efforts?
“I have been involved with vitreous enamel since 1960, and we are all strongly concerned with this product. It is the non plus ultra of coatings, thanks to its hygienic qualities, the brilliance, the resistance to abrasion, the stability of colours. And unlike acrylic it is easy to clean and it can be recycled. The bathtubs that in production are misshapen as those replaced for renewal are pressed and recycled: soon there will be a problem to face – the disposal of acrylic… But people ‘buy with their eyes’. When I was a kid, when I sold potatoes, people only bought the biggest ones. When it comes to bathtubs, they go for the shapes, the size… And how many use a hydro-massage tub?
The steel bathtubs cost little more than Euro 50 and many companies give them away when the customer buys a complete bathroom. But I am confident in the future.
Sooner or later there will be a return to steel (not to cast iron). Steel will be back. People will realise its worth,” says Giovanni Bruni, more resolute than the constant noise of the traffic on the motorway outside.
Q: Are you equally confident about CISP?
“Smavit registered immediately with the Centre. We were registered even before that. However, I believe that it is possible, and that we must do more, to help people understand enamel, the guarantees that it offers. This was our aim when I joined the Board. The annual CISP convention will be held in Viterbo, at our factory, and will be an opportunity for discussing this, too. Apart from visiting the city and our plant. We’ll show everyone that things are done properly in Viterbo.”
The hospitable host, Bruni, sends out an official invitation to the annual convention. It will be interesting to visit Viterbo, its territory and those who work with vitreous enamel.
This story of entrepreneurial affection and stubbornness can only be la good omen for the entire sector.
But, it is also a warning: let’s all make an effort because passion, resourcefulness and tenacity will bring results, sooner or later.